Ah, the third episode, often the sleepiest one of the season. This time around? Some might say so, but I really enjoyed it. With little strategy to go around, we saw a bit more of camp life, something that there hadn’t really been time for in the premiere, and that was quite fun. In addition, Troy’s attempt at getting the idol during a challenge was, if not as satisfying as Kelley Wentworth’s, certainly better dramatically than Jeremy Collins’s challenge idol find, and he’s the first who had to do it while genuinely being in imminent danger. Add in a tense finish to the challenge, and a fun tribal council, and I felt more than satisfied by the episode.
So, what’s on the ticket for today?
A unique swap (winner: big threats, loser: strategy)
I can’t remember seeing a swap where the best strategic play for the majority of each tribe was so transparent before. Two tribes of 5/1 where a single player ends up immediately on the outs led to absolutely no real strategic play occurring on either beach (other than the lone members both searching for idols). The only strategy happening at all was on the Mana tribe, where a 4/2 split and the potential of a three person Koah Rong alliance led at least to some intriguing positioning.
On the other hand, the split led to some remarkable viewer tension (at least, it did for me – did it for you?) First you had the Nuku tribe, packed full of threats – the tribe you desperately wanted not to lose at all costs. Then you had the new Tavua tribe, a tribe on which Troyzan was on the outs but found an idol clue, so even if they lost there was an intriguing story in play about whether or not he would get the idol and if so, who would go home. Lastly, you had the Mana tribe packed full of also-ran players (sorry Tai), which was immediately the tribe I was rooting for to lose to balance out the numbers of legends vs non-legends a bit.
I can’t quite remember a swap like this before – one that leads to a lack of interesting interpersonal strategic dynamics, but a much more interesting challenge that felt like the stakes (for all of us) were high.
Caleb’s ouster (was it Malcolm’s fault?)
Once again, my predictions for this season were well off-base. Here’s what I said about Caleb:
“I can’t think of a reason that anyone, on any potential tribe, would want to vote Caleb out pre-merge unless it is strictly an unlucky break with numbers (or, perhaps, a pre-emptive strike against Tai). Caleb’s going to go out around 6 or 7, when people start thinking about removing other people’s goats.”
However, while I was very wrong about where Caleb ended up, I do think he got an unlucky break in the numbers and was voted out as a pre-emptive strike. I’m just not sure the strike was against Tai.
Caleb had strong allies on the Mana tribe in Malcolm and, it appeared, Aubry. He had already been floated as a target by Ciera due to his links to Tony while Tony was around. I think he had integrated into the original Mana tribe reasonably well. We saw Caleb tell Tai he got on with Malcolm, and I’m willing to bet Hali was telling others as well. I’m sure it was no secret that Caleb was in with the bigger threats remaining from the Mana tribe.
We saw a lot of emphasis on Hali’s lack of connections during the episode. I don’t think this was as simple as Caleb being connected to Tai and Hali not being connected to Sierra. This felt like a broader discussion of how connected Caleb was in the game generally. I think this is what primarily led to Caleb’s downfall in this game.
Mellow Troyzan (this is MY zen)
Troyzan is slowly emerging as a player whose game is changing from what we remember of him. If Ciera is the player who was messing with tribal zen, Troy feels like the guy who may instead bring the zen to the tribe going forward.
So far this season, Troy is standing out as a dark horse to win the season. He still has some rough edges to get to that point (like wanting to take Sandra to the end with him), but his edit so far represents a voice of both calm and reason.
His confessional where he sees right through Andrea and recognises she is just telling him what he wants to hear was included for a reason. It’s possible it could simply be foreshadowing the outcome of a Troy idol play, but it could also be that the idea is to present Troy as someone who does have social awareness. Combined with the fact that his willingness to stick with Sandra sat in a secret scene instead of on the show itself, this could be showing us a glimpse into Troy’s narrative going forward.
This is Troy’s biggest obstacle this season. He has demonstrated lapses in social awareness in the past, but if he can correct those, he will be in much better shape. If he is both mellow and aware, I could see him being the guy everyone wants to work with come the merge, and that’s a great spot for him to be in.
Social Brad (This is NOT What Monica Would Do)
Another player we are seeing a different side of is Brad Culpepper. Last time around, Brad was presented as brash, out of touch with his tribe mates and bad at math. Out of all the things I might have expected from him this season, a deft social move was not among them.
Brad identified a conflict in two separate risks he was facing. The first risk was an alliance of Debbie, Tai and Caleb (a risk probably more imagined than real given Debbie seems inclined to avoid the target that a Kaoh Rong block brings at all costs). The second risk was alienating Tai. Brad’s ideal outcome in this situation was managing to turn the tribe around to a Caleb vote while keeping Tai onside.
By getting Tai to make the call, but pointing out to Tai the risks with keeping Caleb around, Brad did not force the issue. I believe Brad would have voted Hali out if he realised that Tai would not go forward with the plan, but he also used every piece of persuasion he had to make the move go his way. It reminded me of the play of Yul Kwon, and in my book that’s an incredibly flattering comparison.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking in the past about why lawyers don’t win Survivor. If ever there was an example of a lawyer using their skills to great advantage, Brad showed it right here. I think many lawyers would have fallen into the trap of choosing one risk to accept over the other (probably, just by voting out Hali and worrying about Caleb later). Brad figured out how to have his cake and eat it too. That’s shrewd.
In terms of timing, I also think the move was good for Brad. He’s securing Tai for a long term working relationship, but he hasn’t burned any social capital to do it, and he also hasn’t brought much threat on himself by saving an ally or doing something flashy. You can make a move like this early without it coming back to bite you.
Goat hunting (this isn’t Bambi)
Hey, what’s up with all the Bambi talk. Bambi was a deer, people! Deer and goats are different!
We could debate the merits of killing and eating a goat on Survivor forever. My own view? Well, I love anything that forces people into difficult social dynamics. The morality of eating animals has been part of Survivor’s fabric since all the way back in The Australian Outback, where Alicia waved a finger in Kimmi’s face and Mike killed a pig, through to Kaoh Rong where Mark the Chicken made the intro credits. To me, the outcome doesn’t matter (I would have trouble getting upset about the death of a goat when, in most of the world, that’s what the goats are kept for). It’s the process that is where the heart of Survivor really lives.
However, me talking about the literal goats on Nuku beach is a distraction. What I’ve really been thinking about is the way in which people are gathering those they want to take to the end this season.
I was critical of the casting last week, but this week I’ve begun to notice something I think is a noticeable trend (even looking back on the premiere). People are already playing with one eye on who they go to the end with.
Tony bonded with Caleb. Malcolm bonded with Caleb. Sandra bonded with Troyzan (and possibly Hali). Ozzy bonded with Brad. This week Brad is bonding with Tai. But all of this bonding appears to me to have one eye firmly on the end game. Who do I want to work with in this game but also sit with at the end?
It must be incredibly tempting, even knowing that there will be copious twists in the game, to get a group together from day one and plan to get to the end together, especially if that group has people that could win.
I hope that what we see begin to develop over the next couple of weeks is the big threats seeing other big threats as their goats. For example, does Sandra see Malcolm as beatable? Does Andrea believe she can beat Ozzy? Would Aubry consider trying to keep JT around? This could be an interesting area of development for the season.
Troyzan is sitting pretty right now, with his idol and potentially his choice of who goes home if Tavua go to tribal this week. I think he is making very few ripples and if he is presenting to his tribemates the way he is on TV, people are going to want to work with him if he makes it through this phase of the game.
After Andrea was invisible in the premiere, all we saw of her this week was Troy seeing through her transparent attempt to include him. Andrea probably didn’t do anything wrong (is it really better for her to say he is going home if they lose? Perhaps. But I think it’s better to keep your line of communication open) but it’s notable that this is all we have really seen of her on the season. At this point, Andrea is going to have to make a big comeback to be around a while. I wonder if she could be the victim of Troy’s idol play as soon as this week, potentially.
We’ve seen nothing to suggest Cirie is any better off than last week, but at least she isn’t on the bottom of her tribe. Given Troy was happy to work with Sandra, my guess is that Cirie wouldn’t be his first target in an idol play.
Ozzy seems well set up in the current tribe with these people, probably. You can never be sure that he wouldn’t be the target of a Troy idol play, but he would have been in big trouble being down in the numbers, so he is in a much better position with them. I also think Ozzy is playing a more mellow version of himself so far – no showmances, very little sign of him being an alpha male trying to call the shots. It will be interesting to see how Ozzy handles his first visit to tribal council.
Sarah was invisible, more or less, this week. There isn’t much to say, except that I’m not sure she’s going to be a big player at this point.
I think this tribe swap is ideal for Zeke. He has Cirie who I still think he will work with if given half a chance. He has enough threats that his status as an unknown won’t come straight to the fore. Of everyone from the original Nuku tribe, Zeke probably found himself in the best spot after the swap.
Oh dear, JT. I think JT really blew it this week. Leaving everyone out on the boat and going idol hunting might have been great comedy, but it was a terrible hit on his social game. If anyone was wondering whether this would be the loyal and trustworthy (if a bit too likeable) JT from Tocantins or the unpredictable, dangerous to allies JT from Heroes vs Villains, they just got their answer.
JT was deeply in trouble after the swap and he probably had little choice but to search for an idol, but he needed to do it in such a way that it didn’t bury any social capital he might have had with this group. Where what he really needed to do was try to convince Malcolm and Sandra that they needed each other and would need to take out someone like Michaela if they went to tribal, instead he demonstrated that he didn’t have any trust that anyone might work with him. Why would you work with him after that display?
JT identified that Sandra was running the show on Nuku, and I think she is (as much as Malcolm wants to). I tend to think JT has guaranteed he goes first unless he finds an idol, so Sandra feels safe for now, and possibly safe in this tribe, once again, full stop (but I don’t know exactly how).
Similarly for Malcolm, although I think Malcolm really needs to be more careful and watch himself. While JT was at his social best in the goat situation, Malcolm felt much more like he was demanding an outcome from the group. Malcolm feels to me like this seasons true alpha male so far – the only person who has made the mistake of trying to take leadership upon his own shoulders – and he’s alienating people. He alienated Michaela last week, and I feel like he might have done the same to Sandra this week. If JT finds an idol and it becomes known, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sandra turns the target on Malcolm... and it might just work.
Malcolm really needs to pull his head in. On a season where we already saw Tony get his head chopped off, Malcolm is emerging as the biggest threat in the game. That’s not where you want to be.
We didn’t see much of Michaela this week. She stayed in the pack. These threats ought to be looking at her for their vote, but there’s no sign yet that they are.
Jeff continued to gently play the social game rather well. Of everyone, I feel like he handled the goat situation the best, recognising both sides of the ethical dilemma even as he came down on one side. Jeff continues to look in great shape to make the merge.
It’s hard to figure out where Aubry fits in this group. She still feels withdrawn, and I’m waiting to see some real connections and gameplay from her before I evaluate where she’s sitting.
As discussed at length above, Brad made a great social move with great timing this week. He’s in control of this Mana tribe and so he’ll be around until at least the next swap.
Debbie is also in a good spot. She describes in a secret scene her alliance from her original tribe as including Brad, Sierra and Sarah... this is unfortunately the very kind of alliance I’m afraid of. But, from Debbie’s perspective, she has picked her allies very well. It’s hard to criticise Debbie’s game at all to this point. I can’t see Brad trying to get her out.
Sierra remains a non-entity on the show, but if Debbie is being honest about the alliance, she isn’t going any time soon.
Oh Tai, what are you doing! Brad let it be your decision, but you let him get in your head.
Tai’s best move was definitively to get rid of Hali. Caleb was always going to be the bigger target between the two, and Tai didn’t need to fair them being seen as a pair come merge time. Also, Brad identified the possibility of a ‘Kaoh Rong three’ coming out on top in Mana if Hali went, and even though I don’t think it would have happened, Tai needed to keep that door open.
I don’t believe Brad would have burned social capital to keep Hali and boot Caleb if Tai decided Hali needed to go. Tai came in to the season determined not to let people talk him out of his best move, but unfortunately I think he’s already suffering the same fate he did last season. He’s too easily led and doesn’t have a strong enough sense of strategy to succeed.
Hali will absolutely be the next boot if this tribe goes to tribal again, unless she finds an idol. We didn’t see much of what Hali might have done to ensure the vote was Caleb this week (probably because it seems unlikely it was actually what decided the outcome of the vote).
However, Hali did show some interesting glimpses of good strategy at tribal council, and it will be interesting to see if she gets the chance to translate them into a longer run. She took Caleb’s arguments and turned them against him, and while it was all theatre in reality (and she knew it), it still shows that she has the goods to create persuasive arguments if she needs to later. I’m still hopeful that Hali can put her skills together and do something strong strategically down the line in this game.
* Sorry for the lack of interludes from my mother. I think she’s scared of Debbie or something. Or it might be that I watched the episode quite late and so she didn’t want to spoil me.
* I know that they can’t make it too predictable or people will see it coming and be on permanent lookout. But more idols at challenges please, Survivor. They are going to add to the drama more often than not. I also loved the ‘message in a bottle’ approach to hiding the clue. Very cool.
* Having said that, Survivor could really use a bit more variety in their challenges. I know things like ‘landing boomerang on a target’ is very old school, but it’s also way better to have things like that break up the monotony of ‘obstacle course, knots and bland puzzle’. At this point, I’d also prefer that all puzzles are challenging. While this puzzle allowed for very tight finishes as it happened, it really wasn’t a puzzle. It was just ordering planks of wood in a row, and we’ve seen it several times now.
Don’t forget to comment or tweet me your thoughts on the episode, please! I’ll respond. Until then... see you next week!
By day, Ben Martell is a public commercial lawyer from New Zealand.
By night, he moonlights as a self-described Survivor 'expert'.
By day or night, find him on twitter at: @golden8284